Andre Davis candidly talks race, law and more
(pictured above: Gregory Parks chats up Judge Andre Davis (right).)
As part of Wake Forest University School of Law’s Jurist-in-Residence program, Andre Davis, the senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, spent Feb. 24–27 imparting pearls of wisdom gleaned from his exemplary judicial career to law students.
Davis was set to make history back in 2000 when President Clinton nominated him to the Richmond, Va.-based Fourth Circuit, which, at the time, had never had a black judge. His confirmation, however, was derailed. (President Clinton, also in 2000, controversially appointed Roger Gregory to Fourth Circuit while Congress was in recess, making him the court’s first black member.) Davis was renominated to the Fourth Circuit, which hears appeals of cases from North and South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, by President Obama in June 2009, winning Senate confirmation in November 2009.
During his four-day stint at Wake Law, Davis led a course on Criminal Procedures, Civil Procedures and Federal Courts and candidly discussed his career, life and the law during a public discussion with Professor Gregory Parks, who once clerked for Davis, at Worrell Professional Center on Feb. 27.
Davis addressed his “very humble beginnings” in east Baltimore in the 1950s and ’60s. His first ambition was to become a writer. Law piqued his interest only after he took a constitutional law course at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The reality of what the law was and what the law could achieve was exposed to me,” he told the students. “…I knew from this moment in Philadelphia that I wanted to be a lawyer and that was what I was here on earth to be.”
While an aptitude for the material is important, being passionate about the work is an essential component of becoming a good lawyer, Davis said.
“Love the law,” he advised the audience of mostly law students. “Pursue your studies as an act of love, because it will empower you to achieve just incredible, incredible things, for yourself and for your family.”
Davis, who celebrated his 65th birthday last month, is now a senior judge – a pre-retirement status. He said he was attracted to serving as a judge, which he calls “an extraordinary honor and privilege,” because of his desire to teach and mentor the next generation of legal minds. As a law student, Davis said he was inspired and empowered by the example set by the late Harry Cole, a former state senator and the first African American to serve on the Maryland Court of Appeals. Cole, who passed away in 1999, was appointed in 1977, while Davis was in law school at the University of Maryland. The news of his appointment inspired Davis.
“I needed that to happen. I really needed that to happen, to affirm my prospects,” Davis said. “Even though I had great prospects, I needed to know what was possible, and the way you learn what is possible is to see what is. That is why I am here at the Wake Forest law school.”
Davis implored the students not to let any obstacle deter them from their hopes and dreams.
“The world is open to you, if you work hard, if you seek out the mentorships and the guidance that you need,” he intoned. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t achieve your dreams.”
Davis addressed the issues of race and racism in the criminal justice system after being probed by Parks.
“In so many ways – some quite positive, but far too many negative ways – race is the defining feature of the American criminal justice system,” Davis declared. “The mass incarceration that we see, and the impact that it’s having on the African American community specifically and other communities of color in general, has been a blot on our criminal justice system for decades. It’s absolutely outrageous.”
In order to effect positive change with respect to race and race relations, African Americans must be willing to serve on both sides of the aisle – as both prosecutors and defense attorneys, Davis said. He challenged his audience to employ their skills and expertise to eradicate institutional racism and build a more equitable system for their successors to inherit.
“Much of the problems of race in the criminal justice system would be, if not resolved, seriously addressed if more people of color and people committed to civil rights and social justice became prosecutors,” he stated. “…The law is a wonderful institution, and for people who care about social justice and equality, we need those people at every segment of the law.”
First-year law student Tony Ogw was impressed by Davis’ candor.
“I was surprised by how socially-conscious he was,” the Dallas, Texas native said, noting that many African American judges exhibit more conservative values. “…It’s cool to know that there isn’t one black opinion in the judicial courts, there are multiple different views.”
Ogw, an aspiring business consultant, said he was taken by Davis’ engaging, eloquent manner of speaking.
“I could listen to him talk for hours,” the 23-year-old declared. “He seems like a great guy.”
WFU Law Dean Blake Morant said it’s essential that law students are exposed regularly to working professionals like Davis.
“There’s such an intertwining between the doctrine of law that we teach and the practice of law,” he said. “…What Judge Davis does is really an important part of the entirety of what we do in our profession.”